Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin (Upper Marlboro-D) pleaded guilty Friday to driving under the influence in a crash that wrecked a government vehicle and injured two people.
Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia sentenced him to probation before judgment and ordered him to pay a $645 fine.
Franklin appeared in court for the first time since he was arrested in November, after he rear-ended a Mercedes stopped at a red light in Upper Marlboro.
The crash was not the first time Franklin damaged a county car.
Franklin damaged another government vehicle in a distracted-driving crash in 2012, public records show. Two months before that, he had banged up the same SUV in a crash that he didn’t report to police.
It is not clear what impact the plea will have on Franklin’s political aspirations for 2018.
The drunken driving incident for which he was sentenced Friday occurred shortly before midnight Nov. 21 near Pennsylvania Avenue close to Dower House Road.
Franklin rammed into the back of Teresa and Matthew Collins' car at 50 mph, said Kyle O'Grady, a prosecutor for Montgomery County who handled the case on behalf of the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office.
Authorities administered a breath test, which measured Franklin’s blood alcohol concentration at 0.10, according to a copy of a police report obtained by The Washington Post. A blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more supports a DUI charge in Maryland.
The impact of the collision was severe, totaling the couple's car and putting them both in the hospital and with some injuries from which they said they still are recovering.
“Three seconds before the impact I remember my husband screaming, 'Oh my god!'" Teresa Collins said.
Matthew Collins said that the fine and sentence didn't seem adequate. “No matter if someone is hurt or not hurt, you pay a fine and move on with your life,” he said. “I don't feel it's fair but that's the law.”
After the hearing, Franklin publicly addressed the incident for the first time, saying he would work “doubly hard” to earn back the trust of constituents and the public.
“I take full responsibility for the accident and I'm very very sorry to the victims of the accident,” Franklin said “The bottom line is whenever you get in front of the wheel of a vehicle, you need to be in the right shape to drive.”
Franklin, a longtime community activist and lawyer, was first elected to the County Council in 2010 to represent some of the most rural parts of southern Prince George’s County. He said Friday that he is “very seriously” focused on filling one of two at-large seats on the Prince George’s County Council. Franklin is term-limited in his district seat and has not made a formal announcement.
In the November incident, Franklin was charged with driving while impaired by alcohol, driving while under the influence of alcohol, negligent driving and failure to control speed on a highway to avoid collision, police said. He pleaded guilty Friday to driving while impaired and failure to maintain control of a vehicle and speed.
O'Grady asked the judge to sentence Franklin to something beyond probation before judgment.
The judge replied that he's been handling drunken driving cases for more than 40 years and long ago gave up the idea of weighing how severe the impact of a crash was in misdemeanor cases, opting simply to give everyone the maximum sentence. Femia said “a drunk is a drunk on the road” and he saw no difference between a fender bender or a crash that totaled a car.
Throughout the morning in the dozens of cases that were called before Franklin's, Femia took a very formulaic approach, sentencing virtually every person to probation before judgment, a fine or a night in jail, regardless of the circumstances behind each case.
The judge had told Franklin that instead of a fine, he had the option of spending the night in jail. “From his position he can see how he's spending our money,” Femia said about the possibility of Franklin spending a night in jail. Franklin opted for the fine. The council member could have been ordered to use an interlock device that restricts access to the ignition under a Maryland law that recently toughened the standards for the devices from 0.15 to 0.08 blood alcohol concentrations. In a statement after his plea, Franklin said he had voluntarily enrolled in the interlock program on December 9, 2016 and will be in it for the rest of the year. He also said he had completed a 12-week alcohol education program earlier this year.
After the crash, Franklin was not in the immediate area of the county SUV he was driving when troopers arrived to investigate the collision, police said. Shortly after, a trooper spotted him about 70 yards away walking back toward the crash, but it is unclear why Franklin was away from the SUV, police said. Franklin had access to the SUVs through a county vehicle program that is the most generous in the area, and since his November crash, has come under scrutiny. A county task force is reviewing the take-home car policy for elected officials.
“There's a lot of disorientation right after the impact of the accident but there was definitely no fleeing of the scene,” Franklin said.
“I don't believe that there's a need for county cars, and certainly I'll never step foot in one if I can avoid it,” Franklin said.
Franklin said his case serves as a “cautionary tale.” With the prevalence of taxis and ride sharing services, “there's really no excuse to get behind the wheel if you're not fully prepared to drive.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Franklin's drunken driving conviction could be expunged. It cannot be expunged. This version has been updated with the change.)
Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.